The Running Man: Behind Adam Saltsman’s Canabalt Sketchbooks

Adam’Atomic” Saltman’s one-button action opus Canabalt (covered earlier in a previous column) will likely become the biggest viral surprise of 2009 – no less than Saltsman himself, who admitted at this year’s Austin GDC Indie Games Fest to wasting and then struggling to capitalize on the game’s success almost instantly seen (the first 120,000 players captured by the game on its second day, and the next 650,000 by the end of the week, saw none of the cross-indie / Twitter /iPhone port promotions then rolled out as quickly as possible).

But there’s hardly anyone in the industry who hasn’t taken seriously his praise and wondered what magic formula might be hidden in his design that can be replicated elsewhere. And so – in the service of fans, potential developers, and established designers – Saltsman provided us with his sketches and notes, illustrating every logical leap he took to complete this first version.


Interestingly, but maybe not that surprising, given that the game was created for experimental gameplay. Bare Minimum Challenge – the documents show a game more complex than what we finally received, with its anonymous runner able to shoot slippery ducks above his now singular jump, and “modify” and “profile” modes obviously removed from the game ( indeed, the entire game now appears to be living in what Saltsman originally intended as a “quick run” option).

And so, what follows are the necessarily short notes and calculations for a necessarily short production, no less worse for it: Let us know if you crack Saltsman’s magic code.

[Canabalt fan art at top by Georgia ‘garlicbug‘ Hurbgljjsa, via Pauli MadamLuna Kohberger’s BBS, via Saltsman]


Saltman’s front page shows the rooftop decorations that would eventually come into play, as well as the first try of the fine mist bomb dropped, along with all the other menu options before (and what appears to be a Mirror edge inspired ventilation system) having been removed from the completed game.


Following Mirror edge the never-successful parkour stunts are shown above, in the first sketchy mockup of how the runner would end up moving, with Saltsman avoiding a day / night progression for the simple black and white palette the game would adopt .


And finally, the first color sketch of the final game’s appearance, and the first proof of its distant unexplained history with giant invaders in the background and dropship-type military vehicles passing through the middle of the ground. Additionally, return to the front page to see Saltsman arguing with himself over the size of the game’s John Woo-style scattered doves.

If you haven’t already, definitely play the end game itself. on its official website, and pick up your essentials IPhone port on the App Store, then check either the unofficial Twitter rankings set up by CapnDesign Where Onstuimig to see where you stand in the eternal race.

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